The Bookmobile came into town twice every year. For some, the height of the year was the small circus in the summer, or the fall high school sports competitions. For me, it was when the Bookmobile came during the first week of April each year: a converted RV filled with books that were sometimes new and always well-priced. The owner, Ms. Worthing, was old and kind and so British you almost suspected she wasn’t British at all. The best part was the library service where you could borrow one book for every two you bought. She made a brief stop back in the first week of September to collect borrowed books and returned the following April.
For six years, my family jokingly called the first week of April my Christmas.
But it was the seventh year that changed everything I thought I knew.
I had borrowed a whole ten books from the Bookmobile that April, but an ugly flu left me bedridden for a week. My sister promised to return them but only returned four, misplacing the other six during our weekly housecleaning. I thought nothing of it, not even when none of us were able to find the six missing books at all – our house wasn’t that big, after all, and I figured I could do an in-depth search when I felt better and just return them next April. Only catching up on missed classes took time and October saw me with agonizing pains stabbing through my abdomen. I was given drugs and antibiotics, had blood work twice and ended up on drugs that barely kept the pain at bay but also meant I had no free time, not even to read, as I struggled to keep up with school.
Somehow, on October 31st, the pain went away. My stomach still looked bloated, and my sister joked to anyone who asked that her brother was pregnant, but I finally felt almost normal for the first time in weeks. My parents didn’t want me going out, but after so long cooped up inside the house I felt I had to at least take a walk and went to a small park two minutes from our house over their objections and just watched the full moon and wondered how people coped with worse pains than my own.
It was quiet, which was strange for Halloween, which is why the rumble of a vehicle on the street caught my ear. It sounded strangely familiar and I turned, did a double-take – I even removed my glasses and put them back on – and I stared at the Bookmobile in confusion. I didn’t move, figuring someone was pranking people like me until Ms. Worthing got out and walked over, the engine juttering to silence. I’m not sure she made any noise as she walked.
“You have something that belongs to me,” she rasped, “do you not, Eric Arthur McTavish?”
The pain in my stomach flared to life and I doubled over, the agony too great even to scream.
Ms. Worthing stepped forward, or perhaps I fell into her. Her grip was hard, but her voice almost kind. “I thought better of you, Eric. But no one steals from the Bookmobile.”
And with that, she reached – Ms. Worthing did – with her right hand, right into my stomach, and pulled out all six missing books one after another as I whined in agony.
Somehow the books were unharmed. My stomach as well. I panted for air, shaking all over, and Ms. Worthing just calmly held one of the books up to her left ear as though listening to it. “It would seem I was wrong; you intended to return them entirely, and would have come April.”
I said nothing, trying to grab what had happened in a way that could make sense.
“I owe you a boon for my error, young Eric,” she said, and her eyes looked so old I was finally scared but couldn’t bring myself to look away. “Are there any books that you desire?”
And I did, of course I did, but something stayed my voice. The pain I had experienced, the impossibility of this evening. “How – what are you?” I asked, and my voice was almost steady. “Please?”
“Oh child,” Ms. Worthing said, and there was grief under the worlds, and a strange kind of pride as well.
People ask what I am going to do when I get older. I smile – my new smile that my sister called inscrutable – and say something will come up. And I add nothing else at all; even the guidance counsellor has stopped asking, perhaps worried I might tell him. Because when I turn eighteen, the Bookmobile will come a week after my birthday in March, and I will learn everything Ms. Worthing can teach me. And then I will drive my own Bookmobile from town to town in turn. Because that is the bargain that I made, and it is the one that the books accepted.
I don’t think I’ll have a British accent. At least not all the time.
But one never knows.